Staff are busy putting the finishing touches on preparations for opening night tonight (May 7) at a stylish new Kitsilano restaurant and reservations are already 80 percent full.
Yet this isn't your average Eastern Mediterranean restaurant.
At Deafined, the entire waitstaff is deaf or hard of hearing.
Even though this is Moe Alameddine's first restaurant with deaf waitstaff, he previously opened blind-dining restaurants across Canada: O.Noir in Montreal in 2006 and in Toronto in 2009, and Dark Table in Vancouver in 2012.
When Alameddine, who hails from Lebanon, sat down with the Georgia Straight to chat about his new venture, he said he had been considering moving next to Calgary to open a new restaurant. After falling in love with Vancouver's relaxed vibe, he opted to stay here and Calgary's loss became our gain.
Although Canada's first deaf-dining restaurant, Signs, opened in Toronto in July 2014, Deafined will mark a first for Vancouver.
Alameddine himself is new to deaf culture and is learning American Sign Language. Although he didn't previously have any personal connections to people with disabilities, he wanted to offer them a chance to work.
"I learned that you should always give [a] chance to people to work whether they're deaf, [or] they're blind…because they do a great job," he said, adding that he has been encouraged by his staff's positivity and enthuasiasm.
According to the Canadian Association of the Deaf, deaf Canadians face an exceptionally high rate of unemployment. Only a mere 20.6 percent are fully employed while 41.9 percent are underemployed and 37.5 percent are unemployed.
YWCA Metro Vancouver Work BC, Vancouver Community College's Job Readiness Program for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and the Western Institute for Deaf and Hard of Hearing are helping Alameddine hire staff. He says he currently has 10 deaf staff and 10 hearing staff, and will integrate more deaf staff into the kitchen after the restaurant becomes more established.
Floor supervisors, who are both hearing and ASL–fluent, will act as interpreters, providing translations for the deaf staff when needed.
The menu marks a departure from the European and North American menus of his previous establishments. Deafined chefs Kristina Walgenbach and Yasser Ziyada will draw upon the cuisines of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Cyprus with selections such as hummus, baba gahnoush, makali (fried cauliflower served with tahini), watermelon and grilled halloumi cheese, and crusted steelhead trout with spinach and roasted vegetables.
There are also vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options, plus fusion selections such as lamb burgers.
And yes, customers will have to use sign language to order their food, but ordering is simplified: each item is assigned either a number or letter, accompanied by an illustration of how to make the sign with your hand.
For instance, beet caviar is the number three, indicated by holding up three fingers. Mint lavender lemonade is S, indicated by forming a fist. Swish tawook (skewered chicken breast with lemon orange couscous) is B, indicated by folding a thumb over your open palm.
To order sirloin steak and batata (sweet potato), customers will have to sign the letter C, by forming the letter C with their hand. Additionally, they will have to sign letters to indicate if they want their steak rare (R), medium (M), medium well done (MW), or well done (WD).
The menu also provides tips on how to interact with a deaf server, such as gently tapping on their shoulder or waving at them if you want their attention, or expecting that they may tap on your shoulder if they want to get your attention.
There are also booklets with instructions on how to sign some essential words, such as please, thank you, and bill.
Alameddine said that working with both blind and deaf staff has made him think fast on his feet and become resourceful, such as using texting to communicate with his deaf staff.
After working numerous years in the fast food business, Alameddine found himself bored working long hours, doing the same thing every day without any opportunity for creativity.
"I enjoy what I'm doing—that's very important, even though sometimes it's a little bit tiring because you put a lot of energy [into it]," he said. "But at the end of the day, this is what I wanted to do. This is what I choose."
In spite of the challenges, he emphasized that he doesn't want people to stay separate in their own communities.
"In the restaurant business, we got to be together communicating all together. That's my whole idea."
While customers may be drawn in by the novelty of the restaurant, Alameddine knows that the menu is what will ensure longevity.
"They come for the concept, and they stay for the food, we say," he said.
Deafined is located on the second floor at 2340 West 4th Avenue.